“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
This famous axiom was attributed to a pioneering retailer in the 19th century, but that uncertainty resonates just as clearly today. So at the Mitchells stores, when it comes to advertising, they stick with what they know: family.
With the Mitchells, marketing campaigns frequently go beyond the conventional, and in the early years of the company they even eschewed traditional advertising techniques. With an aim to create bonds with their customers, many of these efforts were directed at making shoppers feel as though they were part of the family itself.
Andrew Mitchell, vice-president of marketing, recalls how his brother, Russ, was frustrated trying to find penny stamps after the price of postage increased. This frustration was the genesis of a novel marketing campaign: The company bought packets of penny stamps and mailed them to all their top customers, courtesy of Mitchells.
“These little things have always frustrated me,” says Andrew. “The idea is that we treat our customers as family.”
Andrew also recounts the irritation he confronts when trying to find lost collar stays, which became the source for yet another marketing campaign. The company sent all their male clients sets of five collar stays.
Even in Mitchells’ early years, advertising was handled in a unique way. “The very early days when they started the store, the first database was my grandmother’s Christmas card list,” recalls Andrew. “That was how she started. She was an incredible note writer. That was 50 years ago.”
In the Sixties and Seventies, Mitchells concentrated on advertising in local newspapers and reinforced its commitment to family values. Most of these print advertisements included images of sales associates, local politicians and the family members themselves.
“In the early days the ads were always about the story,” says Andrew. “There would be a father and son shopping with my grandfather, with the father saying, ‘I got my first bar mitzvah suit here, now I take my son.’ Very storytelling-driven.”
Twenty-five years after the inception of the company, Ed Mitchell, Andrew’s grandfather, advertised on the radio for the first time. Ed hired Wynn Elliot, a famous network sportscaster who was also a close friend, to do the spots. This was the first time the company used its tagline: Once a customer, always a friend.
In the Nineties, as the company shifted its business to the designer market and looked to reap the benefits of the growing affluence in Connecticut, Mitchells started to refocus its marketing philosophy. The company wanted to become a local alternative to New York City and to be seen as a multibrand store. During this period, advertisements still used pictures of the family, but there were many more product-driven looks as well.
The store’s new image book, called 50 Years of Hugs, will encapsulate five centuries of advertising tradition. When the book is released the Sunday after Labor Day, customers will see images that underscore the tradition of relationships at Mitchells. As well as product shots, there will be portraits of family members, customers, vendors, associates and designers (Giorgio Armani will be pictured with Bob Mitchell). “As you are flipping though this book, it will hit all the senses of all the relationships that we have,” says Andrew.
“Family is a competitive point of difference for us,” he adds. “We’re family-owned and community-driven. Having that feeling is very important.”